Meeting Marianne Lee is as confusing as ordering Wasabi in your dessert- sweet and interesting with an alarming kick that leaves you wondering what to make of it all for hours afterwards. You know that it’s definitely going to be a little different (one of the songs on her debut album is a homage to Darth Vader) but the fact that this offaly-born/Dublin native has the confidence to come out with such utterings as “you just put your head down and get on with” makes you think twice about the obvious comparisons to Tori Amos and Kate Bush in terms of wilful flakiness. For starters, she didn’t even take up the piano until her twenties- a project that was, as she puts it to “put the tool kit together” in order to make the songs into the best they can be with real music behind them.
Marianne’s music is, to put it mildly, odd – which of course is a good thing. We at TMO like nothing better than an oddball, particularly one whose preferences extend to lyrics “with an edge” as well as chords that no one sees coming. It’s less of a surprise, then, that ex-Butthole Surfer and fellow eccentric Kramer stepped up to produce her debut album Dew Park– an opus which he had no problem in helping to create from the somewhat overwhelmingly intimate environs of the house in which she lives with partner Justin and two beloved felines Leo and Esme. When I asked her what it was like working with Kramer, Marianne’s eyes light up: ” He’s just so amazing! I now feel like I just couldn’t have done this with anyone else”. The confidence that has been added to what seems at times quite a fragile sounding creature is most definitely down in part to Kramer’s mentoring. I met Marianne in a busy cafe in Dublin to talk about what has been an epic journey for her in writing and producing her fantastic debut album Dew Park.
TMO: You say that you hated your voice when you first heard it recorded. Why?
ML: I had a kind of identity crisis…..Just from doing demos. My voice just wasn’t what I wanted it to sound like or to be. I think I always had this ‘nice girl’ thing which, I suppose comes from years of singing in a choir. It was kind of ‘Vontrap’ really! I think I wanted to get more expression and emotion into it. Actually I think I’m starting to get into that more.
TMO: So…You wanted to be what…Harder?
ML: I wanted to be PJ Harvey!
TMO: And how is the crisis now on the other side of the album?
ML: I’m definitely less precious about it- especially when it comes to singing live. You don’t have the option of saying ‘sorry, would you mind if I just redo that five times?’ Just by default you are forced to sing in a more natural way and I have decided like it or not this is what I sound like.
TMO: Your day job, while not a total deviation from musical creativity, doesn’t exactly tally with the eccentricities of your style. How does being an expert in design branding fit here?
ML: It’s funny because I’ve been a designer for years and have worked a lot with branding. I always felt that it wasn’t really me, though I wasn’t….bad at it. I suppose I like words and I’m into images.Having said that, doing the cover is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done! I did feel the pressure knowing that everything I would do would have to be right because it’s what I do for a living. But again, in terms of the identity crisis, I was forced to just produce something and come to terms with it. I do feel that it’s my baby.
TMO: What made you make the leap from designer to singer-songwriter?
I’ve been serious about this for a number of years. After doing the masters in Creative Writing I decided to go back to work for financial reasons, although I made sure that it was only a four-day week. I made Monday into my writing day and I actually stuck to it and got a lot done. Friday feels too much like a holiday so on Monday I just sweated through it.’
TMO: The difficulties of being an unsigned artist must be especially rough when it comes to getting the album out- especially with the I-Tunes route. How hard was it to get the music out there practically?
ML: Yeah, I thought it would be a simpler process than it is but it turned out to be quite complex. The thing is if you’re independent, I-Tunes won’t take you. You have to go to a distributor [which Marianne did]…but I suppose they have to have some way of filtering. It’s a little bit….cold I thought. It’d be nice if they had some kind of Indie I-Tunes!
TMO: Having had your album produced by Kramer no less must have been an experience- especially given that he wandered over from across the pond to do it? How did this situation come about?
ML: The biggest thing about it was that it really wasn’t a big deal with the kind of person he is. He is incredibly chilled. He’s seen and done it all and nothing phases him. He’s classically trained and can play everything! I was actually listening to an artist called Emily Rogers on Myspace and he had mastered her album. Did you know that there is this horrible thing on Myspace that shows you who has been listening to what? It’s hideous! I don’t listen to stuff on it anymore since I realised they do that! But he obviously worked out that I had been listening to her and got an email from him saying that he liked my stuff. I obviously just jumped on it! I just came out and asked him if he was interested in producing my album. It was just so ludicrous a proposition. He was open to it straight off. He totally put me at my ease as well….even when it came to the singing thing. I think I had read so much about how to look after your voice from the choir that when he told me to have a glass of wine I said :‘but it tightens up the vocal chords!’, and he said ‘that’s crap!’ He really helped me to be less precious about the whole thing.
TMO: So……how did it take shape in terms of logistics?
ML: I took advice from various people I know and a few producers as I really didn’t know how it worked. They all said that you just can’t work with someone that you don’t know……really know because you don’t know what they’re like as human beings. It’s an incredibly personal relationship. So I scraped together the money to go to New York where I met him outside this bar (such an Irish story!) and the whole thing was just this lovely, stress-free thing and I knew that this was the person for the job. The rest of it was just logistics. He came over and stayed with us and just blended in with the family- even the two cats!
TMO: You seem, again a little at odds with the floaty quirks of your music and lyrics. You are deeply self-conscious, yet have a very practical work ethic. How does this work?
ML: Well….when I’m in something I just get on with it and if I’m going to have an emotional wobble, I’ll have it when the whole thing’s finished. I won’t have it during this. I have to say, though when the cellist came in [Ilse de Ziah] it was tough for me. It was more emotional than doing my vocals. I think it’s when you hear somebody who is obviously such an incredible musician and they’re improvising and responding to your music…….it was a dream come true. The best thing about the whole experience was working with the musicians.
TMO: If writing songs were easy then everyone would do it- a truism which, I suspect is true of all creative endeavour. How hard is the creative process for you?
ML: Being creative has been my job for a long time so, the one thing about being a designer is that you can mythologise a bit too much but it’s actually a job to be done. A project has a beginning and an end….you have to have that spark at the beginning and the will to do it but you need to put your head down and get on with it. Every song is a little project and you have to see the thing through. Where the torture comes in is down to the fact that I’m very hard on what I do. If I’ve allowed it out of the factory then it’s worth it.
TMO: Your songs have a very poetic feel to them- Does this influence the way that you write songs? Lyric first, then melody?
ML: I know everyone says this but it varies……..It’s usually a phrase something interesting to me. It could even be an object. So I take an object and I think of all the things that surround it like Darth Vader for example. It was inspired by this little boy who used to dress up in a Darth Vader costume and I thought he was fantastic! It’s really cool! I never would have given Darth Vader a second thought, I mean I was never a Star Wars fan so I don’t have that thing. I go with instinct though – one image leads to another and I just try and make the whole thing come together to have some kind of cohesion. But then I stand back from it and think about it. I think I was trying to say something there about alpha males or something. I never thought about it before but I do think there is something sexy about Darth Vader……think there’s something kind of hot going on there with Darth Vader. I think the song is about self-delusion.
TMO: Is it hard to let something you think of so personally go?
ML: I’m used to letting things go. Things are never perfect. You start out with these aspirations and it’s never perfect so it’s as good as it can be at that time so you let it go and move onto the next thing. The job has to be done. Am I sounding too business like?
TMO: You often get compared to the likes of Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Sandy Denny. How do you carve out your own identity against this massive backdrop?
ML: One thing when I started writing was making a deliberate decision. I haven’t studied the Beatles songbook and I’m never going to be the songwriter that can wrap up a little narrative so if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do something a little bit different. I hope that, for all their flaws that idea comes out. I think I’ve enough distance. I think she is probably working out of quite a complicated psyche whereas I don’t see myself as massively complicated. I’m actually reasonably straight forward. I think that Life and the world is very complex and tangled and dense and that’s actually what I’m dealing with. Having said that there are very personal things in there but they’re quite buried.
TMO: Who are your favourite artists?
ML: I love Michael Nyman. He was very inspiring to me. I think that no matter what profession you are in there always people who you love and think ‘Oh I could do that’, or ‘Oh I could never do that’- you know, that they’re so fantastic that they’re frightening and then there are people who you think are equally fantastic but there’s something that inspires you to think ‘Oh I could give that a go’ Like Michael Nyman whose stuff is really complex but there is always this simple idea. Stina Nordenstam is another one. She was actually the first person that I thought of in terms of ‘Oh I could maybe do that?’ Her stuff is very beautiful and efficient – you get the feeling that she does a lot of it herself.
TMO: I always dreamed of looking as effortlessly cool as Leonard Cohen does in his Fedora (as well, I suppose, as writing his songs as well as he does). If you could steal anything from an artist- be it style or talent, what would it be?
ML: Oh god there are so many things! Just off the top of my head…..I very much admire someone like Alison Goldfrapp for the cohesive quality to everything she does. I love Bjork for the same reason, I mean there’s a sound and there’s also the fact that everything is so carefully thought through from the packaging and imagery. They put a lot of love and care into everything and also control…….that to me is very important. I’m a total control freak. This is actually the ultimate control freak fantasy- that you can manage everything, so that’s what I like. really admire control freaks!
Check out her debut album: www.marianneleemusic.com